Torta di mele

Autumn is unquestionably here.  The air is crisp, the leaves are turning.  The tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and berries that crowded the farmers market stands all summer long have given way to squash, potatoes, carrots and onions.  And there are apples – bushels and bushels of apples.  With the cool weather comes the instinct to fire up the oven again, awakening it after its summer hibernation, and bake.  This Wall Street Journal food article about a Tuscan apple cake reminded us of Italy and inspired us to make our own version of torta di mele.

Torta di mele is a classic Italian homemade treat.  As is so often true, recipes vary.  Stefano’s mom uses more flour and fewer apples, resulting in a delicate, springy cake. Our sister-in-law Valentina and her mom Marinella use less flour and more apples, which makes a more dense, almost pudding-like cake.  Our recipe is somewhere in between.

Despite these variations, a few things are true of all authentic torta di mela recipes.  While our apple crisps, pies and cobblers are heavily seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom, no spices are used in the torta di mele. Only freshly squeezed lemon juice and lemon zest give the cake a light, delicate taste, and not-too-much sugar lets the natural sweetness of the apples come through.

Use Golden Delicious apples; their flavor, consistency and moisture level are perfect for this cake.

700g Golden Delicious apples, peeled and sliced thinly.
Juice of one lemon
Zest of one lemon
3 eggs
1/2 cup (one stick) butter, softened
1 cup whole milk
200 g sugar (1 cup)
250 g flour (1 and 3/4 cup)
1 pouch Pane degli Angeli* (or substitute 1 teaspoon baking soda)

*Pane degli Angeli is an Italian leavening agent lightly sweetened with vanilla.  It is a common ingredient in many Italian baked goods.  If you decide to buy some, search Amazon or another online gourmet foods vendor for “Lievito Pane degli Angeli.”

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Butter and flour a 9″ or 10″ round cake pan, preferably a springform pan.  Set aside.

Core, peel and thinly slice the apples, and place them into a bowl.  Squeeze the juice of one lemon over the apples.  Stir and let rest.

Beat the eggs and sugar with a mixer on high speed for 5 minutes, until the mixture is light and airy.  Warm the butter until it is very soft but not melted and add it to the eggs and sugar, along with the milk and the zest of one lemon.  Stir in the butter, milk and lemon zest.

If you use Pane degli Angeli, pass it through a small strainer, such as a tea strainer, to eliminate any small clumps, and add it to the batter.  If you use baking soda, add it now.  Add the flour, and fold the dry ingredients gently into into the batter, taking care not to over-stir.  Add the apples and mix carefully until coated.

Pour the batter into your buttered and floured pan.  Arrange slices of apple around the top surface of the cake, and bake at 350° for 50-60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  If you wish, turn on the broiler for a few minutes at the end of cooking in order to give the top a golden brown color.

Serve warm or at room temperature for dessert, with afternoon coffee,  or even for breakfast.

Orecchiette con broccoli e salsiccia

We contemplated the name orecchiette as we made dinner tonight.  Orecchie means “ears” in Italian, and the -ette suffix renders a word diminutive.  So, orecchiette means “little ears”.  One look at this rustic pasta and you will agree that its name suits it well.

Linguistic humor is a good thing.  Puns, spoonerisms, idioms, lexical ambiguity and double meanings keep things interesting and add fun to the mundane tasks of daily life.  This is especially true when you are new to a country and just learning its language.  We’ve had some pretty good laughs about English language phrases and expressions that Stefano has mangled.

The first couple of years we were in America he thought that baseball players waited their turn at bat in the dog house, then he learned it is actually called the dugout.  “Tuesday” and “Thursday” were hard ones at the beginning, too.  It’s that darn “th” sound.  Until he became better at pronouncing it, those two days of the week came out sounding alike.  To compensate, he’d schedule appointments and meetings for “Thursday, the one that comes after Wednesday.”

Cara has also had her share of linguistic mishaps in Italian, although perhaps because it has been so long, or perhaps because she happens to be the one writing this particular post, none are coming immediately to mind.

Some pasta names did surprise her when she lived in Italy, though.  This was especially true for pasta that pokes fun at the Church.  Strozzapreti are one example of this.  Prete, (preti in the plural), means “priest,” while strozza means “choke.”  You put it together.  I mean, can you imagine telling a waiter, “I’d like some priest chokers with bolognese sauce, please.”

Compared to this, orecchiette, or “little ears” is actually kind of cute.  That is, until you learn that in some parts of Italy, they are actually called orecchiette del prete, or “priest’s little ears.” There is something not quite right about that name.  Orecchiette are earthy, with a rough texture and a firm bite.

I just made it worse, didn’t I?

Forget about the priest’s ears part, and just focus on the pasta, because it is one of the most delicious forms.  It pairs perfectly with broccoli and sausage for a hearty, flavorful meal.

Ingredients for 4-6 servings
500 grams orecchiette
1 lb ground pork
1 medium head of broccoli
3 cloves garlic
Olive oil
Grated Parmigiano
Crushed red pepper, optional

Cut the crown of the broccoli into small pieces, and boil in salted water until tender.

While the broccoli is boiling, dice the garlic and sauté it in olive oil in a large frying pan until golden brown.  If you like heat, add a sprinkle of crushed red pepper.  Add the ground pork and let it simmer, crumbling it as it cooks.

When the broccoli is tender, drain and add it to the ground pork.  Allow it to simmer together, stirring from time to time until the broccoli becomes soft and deconstructs.  Salt to taste, if needed.

Bring a large pot of water to boil, and add a handful of coarse salt to it.  Boil the orecchiette according to the directions on the package for al denteOrecchiete are a firm, heavy pasta, and cooking time may vary according to taste. Drain the pasta and return it to the pan.  Add the broccoli and sausage, and stir over heat until the pasta is evenly coated.

Serve immediately, with grated Parmigiano on top.

Pesce e patate al forno

Roasted Whole Fish with Potatoes
Some people just aren’t used to eating a whole animal.  The roasted pig sitting on our kitchen cupboard, head and all, garnered a good deal of admiration at Stefano’s recent 40th birthday party.  It’s too bad he (the pig) was not cognizant for it all – a classic case of posthumous fame.

The same is true with fish.  Not everyone is prepared to find a whole one on their dinner plate.  We found our freshwater friend’s underbite amusing; but teeth and eyeballs cause some squirm.  Besides, many of us never learned what to do when presented with a whole fish for dinner.  How does one go about removing the head, skin and spine in order to get to the the tender white fillet inside?

In many cultures, though, eating whole fish is commonplace.  Whole fish is  more economical than fish fillets, and also much better tasting.  Meats and fish cooked in their bones and skin are always moister and more savory than slices of meat or fish separated from the carcass.

In Italy, roasted fish with rosemary potatoes are a common Sunday afternoon meal.  Stefano’s mom, Maria, visits the fish market on Saturday and picks out whichever fish looks the best – sometimes spigola (seabass), other times trota (trout).  Freshness is important – signs of a not-so-fresh fish include a fishy smell, cloudy eyes, and a dry tail.  In Italy, they will typically gut and scale your fish right there for you.  In the States, they will often come scaled and gutted.

On a side note, an Italian fish market is a spectacular sight – be sure to visit one when you are there.

At home, Maria washes the fish, stuffs their cavities with herbs and spices, and bakes them with diced potatoes seasoned with salt, pepper, olive oil and a bit of crushed red pepper.

The first step in eating a whole roasted fish is to remove the head.  Place your fork under its gill, and use your knife to separate the head from the rest of the fish.  Use your knife to remove the tail.  Then, slide your knife under the skin; it should lift right off exposing the tender, flaky fillet below.  Don’t try to turn your fish over to remove the skin on the bottom side.  Instead, carefully lift the fish fillet up and off, leaving the spine intact below.  Remove the herbs that you will find there then, starting from the top, carefully lift the spine away from the other fillet below.  Finally, turn the bottom fillet over and remove its skin.  When you serve whole fish, remember to place a few extra plates out on the table to hold the skin and bones.

1 whole fish per person.  Trout or sea bass work well.
1 potato per person, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes.
1 clove of finely minced garlic per fish, plus extra for the potatoes
1 sprig of fresh rosemary per fish, plus extra for the potatoes
Crushed red pepper
Olive oil

Wash the exterior and the cavity of the fish under cold water.  Coat the bottom of a baking pan or roasting pan with olive oil.  Add the diced potatoes.  Salt and pepper the potatoes liberally, and add a handful of finely mined garlic and rosemary stems.  Rub olive oil on the skin and in the cavity of each fish, and lay them in the baking pan on top of the potatoes.  Salt the cavity of each fish liberally and add the minced garlic.  If you wish, you may also add some crushed red pepper.  Place a sprig of rosemary inside each fish.

Bake at 375° F for approximately 30 minutes.  Once or twice during cooking, use a flat spatula to lift and turn the potatoes, being careful to not prod or poke the fish.  Do not turn the fish.  Cooking time will vary according to the size of the fish; it is done when the skin loosens and the meat is tender but firm to the touch.  Your potatoes may require additional cooking time.  If this is the case, remove the fish and return the baking tray to the oven until the potatoes are golden brown.

Pasta e ricotta

Really good food does not need to be complicated.

On occasion we are drawn in by the allure of a sophisticated dish,  but more often we love the challenge of creating something delicious and genuine out of humble ingredients.  Certainly, fancy kitchen utensils and advanced cooking methods are useful, but there is a lot to be said about starting with simple, quality food and knowing how to put the right flavors together.  And if we can do this in just two or three steps, all the better.

Pasta e ricotta is a simple but delicious recipe, perfect for times when a quick meal is in order.  Use a good, Italian pasta that cooks to al dente well, and fresh, quality ricotta.

(serves 4-6)
1  lb. short pasta, such as penne or rigatoni
1/2 lb (225 g) fresh whole milk ricotta

Bring a pot of water to boil.  Toss a heaping handful of coarse salt into the water, and add the pasta.  Cook the pasta al dente according to the time specified on the package.  Drain the pasta, preserving two cups of the cooking water.

Transfer the pasta back into the pot, and add the ricotta to it.  Mix the ricotta into the pasta, slowly adding as much of the preserved cooking water as is needed to achieve a creamy sauce.

Serve immediately with a grating of Parmigiano and, if desired, freshly ground black pepper.

Frittata con i fiori di zucca

Squash Blossom Frittata

The days are becoming shorter, the nights cooler.  The highest leaves on the tall maple in our front yard are turning gold, orange and red.  Even though these early fall days are warm and sunny yet, there is no mistaking that fall is here.  Our lives have become busier, too.  Gone are the long, lazy summer days.  They’ve been replaced with school, homework, and a faster pace of life.

As seasons change, so do our cooking and eating habits.  We cook more on weekends, and freeze sauces, soups and vegetables for easy reheating during weeknights.  We bake our own bread on Sundays, and we aim for genuine, healthy meals that are also simple and quick to prepare.

The frittata is just that.  Often referred to as an open-faced omelette, the frittata is a classic Italian dish made from beaten eggs mixed with meat, cheese or vegetables and cooked in a skillet over low heat.  Unlike an omelette, the frittata is not folded in half.  Rather, it is carefully flipped so that it cooks on both sides.

There are countless varieties of frittate (singular – fritatta, plural – fritatte): frittata with zucchini, frittata with asparagus, frittata with artichokes, frittata with sausage, frittata with potatoes, and even frittata with leftover pasta.

We opted for frittata with squash blossoms.  One of our favorite summer foods, we jumped on the occasion to have them one more time before summer’s end.

A dozen eggs
Approximately a dozen squash or zucchini blossoms
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano
Olive Oil

Prepare the squash blossoms for cooking by removing their stems and pistils or stamen.  See this previous post on fried zucchini blossoms for specific instructions.  Rinse them gently under water and pat dry.  Slice the blossoms lengthwise into 4 strips.

Heat 2-3 Tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet.  Add the squash blossoms and sauté over medium heat for 7-10 minutes until they become tender, stirring occasionally.

While the blossoms are cooking, crack the eggs into a bowl and beat them by hand until the yolks and whites are evenly mixed.  Add the Parmigiano, and salt and pepper to taste.  When the blossoms are ready, add them to the egg mixture as well, and mix everything together.

Heat a bit of olive oil in a 12-inch, heavy, non-stick frying pan.  Pour the egg mixture into the pan, and cook over medium heat for approximately 5-10 minutes.  As the egg cooks, use a spatula to loosen the underside of the frittata from the pan to keep it from sticking.

When the frittata is cooked about 2/3 of the way through, flip it over to allow the other side to cook, as well.  Frittata-flipping is an art that takes some practice to master.  First, use your spatula to be sure that the bottom of the frittata is no sticking to the bottom of the pan.  Then, find a large, flat lid that covers the entire pan.  It is fine if the cover is even larger than the pan.  Holding the lid tightly against the pan, quickly flip the pan over, turning the frittata upside down onto the lid.  Slowly lift the pan up and return it to the stove, and carefully slide the frittata back into the pan, the cooked side up.

For frittata-flipping phobics, there is an alternative – once the frittata is cooked about 2/3 of the way through, place the frittata, pan and all, under a broiler for 2-3 minutes to allow the top to finish cooking.

Once cooked, carefully remove the frittata from the pan and onto a large plate.  Cut it into wedges just like a pizza, and serve with bread.  Frittata can be eaten warm, or at room temperature.  You can even place the frittata between two slices of bread for a delicious sandwich.

Do any of you have a favorite frittata? 
If so, tell us about it, and share your frittata-flipping tips!

La granita di caffè e la granita di ciliegie

Have you ever entirely forgotten about a food, for years even, until suddenly something reminds you of it and you just have to have it?  A recent LA Times food article on granita had us craving that icy treat for a days.

Granita is the most humble Italian frozen dessertUnlike gelato, it is made with no cream.  Different from sorbetto, which is smooth and soft, granita has a rustic, granular texture as a result of larger, coarser ice crystals.  It is an unpretentious dessert that originates in Sicily, where locals have it for breakfast on hot summer days.  Outside of Italy, granita is often called “Italian ice,” although the products bearing that name neither resemble nor do justice to an authentic granita.

The Times did a nice write up on this gem of a dessert, with recipes and photos for a variety of granite, from traditional cherry to more unusual flavors like green tea and cucumber (Yes, cucumber.  People, please. Cucumbers are good in salads, not in your dessert.)  They didn’t mention what may be Italy’s most famous granita, though, granita di caffè.  We couldn’t keep our minds off of it.

A little online research later – honestly, what did we do before the internet? – and we found this expert post on granita di caffé, on a delightful blog called Memorie di Angelina.  Here, we read about making sugar syrup, an essential to a properly prepared granita, and we borrowed the tip about freezing the granita in a bread pan.

We made granita di caffè for the adults, and granita di ciliegie, or cherry granita, for the kids, topping each one with a healthy dollop of whipped cream.  It made for a delightful weekend!

Ingredients for sugar syrup
Sugar and water, in equal parts.

Ingredients for granita di caffè
2 cups strong, dense espresso
Sugar syrup to taste

Ingredients for granita di ciliegie
1 lb. fresh, pitted cherries
Sugar syrup to taste
Optional: 2 tsp. almond extract
Optional: 2 Tbsp. orange-flavored liquor, such as Cointreau

For the sugar syrup
Mix equal parts sugar and water in a sauce pan.  We made the syrup with 2 cups sugar and 2 cups of water, and had more than we needed for both of the granite.  Cook the liquid over medium high heat until it comes to a boil.  Reduce heat, simmer for 5 minutes, and then remove from heat and allow it to cool completely.

For the granita di caffè
Prepare 2 cups of strong, dense espresso and pour it into a pan that can go into the freezer.  As we mentioned above, we used a bread pan.  Add sugar syrup gradually until your mixture reaches the sweetness you prefer.

For the granita di ciliegie
Wash the cherries, and remove their pits and stems.  Chop the cherries finely in a food processor, and place them into a pan.  Mix sugar syrup into the cherries to taste.  If you’d like, you can add a few teaspoons of almond extract, or a few tablespoons liquor such as Cointreau, or both.

Freezing granita
Place the pans of granita into the freezer uncovered.  Check on your granita every half-hour or hour, depending on the depth of the pan you used.  As it freezes, ice crystals will form around the edges of the pan.  Each time you check on the granita, stir the mixture, breaking up the icy edges.  Gradually, your granita will become thicker and slushier.  When it reaches a soft, solid consistency, it is ready.  This may take a few hours, again depending on the depth of your pan.

As long as you have been stirring periodically, you can allow the mixture to freeze solid.   Before serving, allow it to thaw for about 30 minutes, stirring from time to time until the granita reaches the correct consistency.  You may lose some of the icy, crystalline texture, but if you are entertaining this is a more reliable method from a timing standpoint.

Serve with whipped cream and dessert spoons.

Cherry Tomato and Mozzarella Salad

We just can’t get enough tomatoes this summer.

Big, red beefsteak tomatoes, oblong juicy grape tomatoes, sturdy romas and ugly heirlooms – we’ve had them all.  We had the most delicious yellow tomatoes from a friend’s garden.  Mild-flavored and juicy, with a bit of salt, oil and basil they were perfect.  I thought for a moment that these would be our favorite tomatoes of the summer.

But then we saw these eye-catching little cherry tomatoes in a variety of summer colors at the Minneapolis farmers market, and all bets were off.  “They are too pretty to eat,” stated the woman next to us.  

The mixed-variety basket was fun to photograph – red, yellow, black, orange and green cherry tomatoes, and yellow, red and orange pear tomatoes.

We added little ciliegine di mozzarella (small, bite-sized mozzarella), basil, salt, and ground black pepper.  Dressed in olive oil, it became a quintessential summer salad.  And to the woman  at the farmers market – we had no problem at all eating it.

2 pints mixed variety cherry tomatoes
2 eight-ounce containers of ciliegine di mozzarella
1 bunch basil
Ground black pepper
Olive oil

Serves 4-6

Wash the tomatoes.  Quarter or halve the larger size tomatoes and place them into a salad bowl.  Toss the small ones in whole.  Drain the water from the ciliegine di mozzarella, halve them, and add them to the tomatoes.  Wash the basil and using kitchen shears, snip into pieces over the tomatoes and mozzarella.  Salt and pepper to taste, and drizzle olive oil liberally over the salad.  Allow to sit 15 minutes at room temperature.  Serve with crusty bread to soak up the juices.